Saturday, May 28, 2011

Palmer: The story behind the story

When Post Register reports first inquired about Daren Palmer two and a half years ago, state and federal regulators had never heard of him or his company, Trigon Group.

For months, we had been hearing bits and pieces about a local investment scheme that might be in some trouble. Information came in dribs and drabs, often incomplete or simply not factual. Investors we talked to were concerned, but they didn’t want to talk to us on the record.

At one point, Post Register reporters and editors gathered around a white board and charted everything we knew or suspected, drawing lines connecting various companies and people to try to sort it all out. Meanwhile, reporters Sven Berg and Clark Corbin spent hours knocking on doors and making phone calls, often getting nowhere.

We were cautious, never printing anything that we hadn’t verified, and never relying on off-the-record or anonymous sources. As state and federal investigators began looking into Trigon, some investors pushed back, blaming our reporting for stirring up trouble. “Just because you were the ones who shouted ‘iceberg’ doesn’t mean you sank the Titanic,” one investigator told us.

In February of 2009, one investor, Scott Hillam, went public with his story and backing documents, which encouraged other investors to talk to us. The coverage really broke open on Feb. 28, when the federal government filed a civil case against Palmer, charging that he had operated a Ponzi scheme. Palmer’s assets were frozen. Eventually, his unfinished $4 million home would go on the market.

It would be 26 long months before Palmer would face criminal charges. The plea deal that Palmer signed last week includes the astonishing statement that Palmer had received nearly $76 million from 68 investors and that “they lost in excess of $20 million.”

The investigation is not over. In his plea agreement, Palmer promises to “provide truthful and complete information to the government and its investigative agencies, including testimony in legal and administrative proceedings, concerning the defendant’s role and the role of all others involved in offense-related behaviors.”

Over the past several months, our reporters called investigators every day for updates. When we learned that Palmer had started a new company, we actually held the story for a couple of weeks, since we expected charges to be filed any day. Ironically, the day after we decided to print the story about Palmer’s new business, the charges were filed.

While the story will continue to play out, the criminal charges and Palmer’s agreement to plead guilty are the climax of a series of events that started with a small group of reporters and editors who didn’t stop looking when all roads seemed to lead to nowhere.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Asked and received

I asked for your comments and I got them.

Between the various traditional and new-media options, we received 66 responses to my request for feedback on whether it was appropriate to put a story about Quentin Killian, aka “Troll”, on our front page. As part of our ongoing series about “characters” in downtown Idaho Falls, we featured the tattoo artist on our front page last week, causing a strong reaction from at least a dozen or so people who called in (and, no doubt, others who didn’t.).

Getting feedback from e-mail, Facebook, phone calls and that old standby, the Postal Service, isn’t exactly scientific, but it’s instructive and interesting. Here’s the breakdown: 17 people said the story either was entirely inappropriate or should have been published in our West section, not on the front page. The remainder -- 49 people -- thought both the story and its play on our front page was perfectly appropriate.

After years of reading and moderating our Post Talk message board on the Post Register’s web site, I’ve become all too accustomed to uncivil language, name-calling, and discussions that deteriorate into a series of personal jabs. In contrast, nearly all of the comments we received on the Killian story were thoughtful and polite.

You’ll not be surprised that the following comment was my favorite, from a “politically conservative” reader: “I'm continually amazed that a small community the size of I.F has been the home of a local newspaper having the quality of the PR.”

Here’s something else we found interesting -- people who called or hand-wrote letters were almost uniformly against our decision. People who sent e-mails or posted on Facebook or Post Talk were generally in favor of the decision. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to conclude that this probably indicates different tendencies based at least partially on age.

That pretty much describes a daily newspaper’s challenge and opportunity. Our 70,000 readers range from 12 to 90-plus in age, yet we put out one edition per day. We try to choose news and information to interest that broad range of people.

While the response I get may not be scientifically representative of our entire readership, it was a healthy reminder of our need to put out a newspaper every day varied enough to continue attracting a wide audience without unnecessarily poking some of our readers in the eye.

After all of this I reaffirmed, to myself, at least, that the placement of the story was a good decision and that getting regular feedback from our readers is a really good thing. Don’t wait for another invitation – drop me a letter or e-mail or join the conversation on the Post Register’s Facebook page any time.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Tattoos and the front page

Why would the Post Register feature a man with a tattooed face on its front page?

After all, isn’t the front page reserved for the most important news of the day? No one would suggest that a feature about one of downtown Idaho Falls’ “characters” constitutes “important” news as it’s traditionally defined.

There is some method to our madness. First, we don’t necessarily see the front page as the gathering place just for “important” news. We consider it a representation of the best reporting and writing for that day, a place that provides an entry point to the rest of the paper. Sometimes, our choices seem trivial to some, particularly readers who understandably expect their front page to reflect a certain level of gravitas.

I thought Zach Kyle’s profile of Quentin Killian, aka “Troll”, in the front page of our May 10 edition was nicely written – an interesting look into one of the diverse personalities that make up eastern Idaho. I like our decision to put it on the front page.

But that view isn’t shared by everyone. One caller left me a message saying she’d taken the bundles of that day’s paper that had been delivered to a local school for use as part of our Newspapers in Education program and tossed it in the garbage. For others, the main objection was less the story than its placement on the front page.

We do want to surprise our readers from time to time. We want to provide access to the depth and diversity within our communities that aren’t always plainly obvious. We want to celebrate both the people who prefer living within traditional norms and those who press against the boundaries. And, we want to do those things without offending for the sake of a story.

We don’t survey our 70,000 readers every day to determine what stories they’d like to see on their front page. Instead a relative handful of people in our newsroom – a half-dozen or so – debate that daily selection, attempting to create something that represents the best we have to offer.

There can be little doubt that sometimes we miss the mark, though I don’t think the Killian story was one of those times. Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t matter what I think – what do you think? Give these questions some thought:

- What criteria should the Post Register use to decide what goes on its front page every day.

- Should we avoid nontraditional news stories and stick to the big news events of the day?

I’d like to hear from you – drop me a note at rplothow@postregister.com or jot down your thoughts and send them to 333 Northgate Mile, Idaho Falls, 83401.